Verisimilitude in Early Venetian Opera: A Historical Perspective and a Study of Monteverdi’s Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria

This paper was presented for a graduate class at Hunter College in the Fall of 2004.

The development of Venetian public opera in the 17th century is crucial to a comprehension of the genre as a whole. Many conventions and characteristics of opera were set in Venice in the later part of that century. Those elements emerge from opera’s Florentine past as well as its early Venetian developments in the 1640’s. In this formative process, the issue of the verisimilitude of sung drama played an important role. From the early days of public opera in Venice, librettists and composers felt a deep need to preserve verisimilitude in their creations. My paper will address this issue by exploring how Venetian creators approached it and how it contributed in shaping opera in 17th-century Venice. Continue>>

Firstly, I will describe opera’s Florentine background and its impact on the Venetian scene. Keeping those ideas in mind, the discussion will delve into the socio-cultural environment of Venetian librettists and their conception or approach to the problem of verisimilitude. The last part of this essay will use Monteverdi’s opera, Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria, to illustrate some of the ideas previously explored.  

Florentine opera like Monteverdi’s Orfeo or Peri’s Eurydice addressed the problem of verisimilitude through different means. As argued by Pirrotta, Florentine as well as Mantuan librettists and composers deliberately chose plots where mythical characters known for their natural abilities to sing were central. [1] Librettists also made extensive use of pastoral settings where singing characters did not seem so unusual to the audience. It is worth noting that those views are not exactly shared by Tomlinson who claims that the audience of early opera did not require justification for music drama. Complaints about sung drama, he says, do not “seem to have emerged much earlier than the 1640’s.” [2] Early operas, Tomlinson adds, were first rooted in the tradition of favolas or fabulas as Poliziano’s Fabula di Orfeo and:

…arose from a Florentine cultural elite captivated by notions of Orphic singing and its effect, an intellectual milieu permeated by Ficinian Neoplatonism that granted music a fundamental role in the structuring of the cosmos and magical powers in man’s interaction with it. [3]

  While the aristocratic audience of Florentine opera might have been prepared to accept musical speech, composers nevertheless addressed the problem of verisimilitude with the invention of recitative. Pirrotta refers to this as recitar cantando (as opposed to cantar recitando that is associated with songs and arias.) Monteverdi, Peri, and Caccini all contributed to the invention of this sung recitation meant to emulate speech. From those days, recitative has remained an important part of opera. [4]

  Mythological and pastoral subjects as well as recitative were initially transposed to the Venetian reality. As Pirrotta explains, the Venetian public was unprepared to hear sung speech as a normal way for humans to express themselves. [5] By the 1650’s however, opera as a genre was firmly established in Venice. Yet, one of opera’s important premises, the verisimilitude or vraisemblance of sung drama, still seemed significant to its creators. As this witness of the past, Francesco Sbarra, writing in 1651, tells us:

I know that the ariette sung by Alexander and Aristotle will be judged contrary to the decorum of such great personages; but I also know that musical recitation is improper altogether, since it does not imitate natural discourse and since it removes the soul from dramatic compositions, which should be nothing but imitations of human actions. Yet this defect is not only tolerated by the current century but received with applause. [6]

  This account tells a good deal about ideological and intellectual questions that the new genre occasioned but also admits that the “suspension of disbelief” required by the audience in the face of musical speech could be taken for granted in Venice at that time.

  Librettists took issues of verisimilitude seriously in the early days of Venetian operas. When was sung drama appropriate? Which characters could legitimately sing in an opera? What kind of poetry lent itself best to sung drama?  Because they were the stars of early Venetian opera, librettists were credited with a work’s failure or success. That put a lot of pressure on this new “profession” where conventions did not yet exist. Librettists operated with the constant paradigm that their work could not stand alone, that the oeuvre was complete only with the addition of music. Hence, they claimed that their poetry, because of the exigencies of music, had to be deprived of some of its elegance and refinement. For those reasons and also issues of verisimilitude mentioned above, early Venetian librettists constantly justified their work. Rosand indicates in her work that these justifications and aesthetic preoccupations were sparked by the librettists’ “discomfort with verisimilitude.” [7]

  These issues are closely linked to the first librettists’ social background and education. Most librettists—almost all of them in fact—were closely associated with the prestigious Accademia degli Incogniti. The Incogniti was composed of well-learned aristocrats who shared interest in antique arts and literature as well as power in the Venetian Republic. The Incogniti promoted ideological and intellectual debates on every subject and had a predilection for questioning received dogmas. [8]   As Rosand puts it in “Opera in 17th Century Venice:

These attitudes—the heavy emphasis on Aristotle, the training in debate, and the appreciation of equivocation promoted by the academy—strongly conditioned the impact of the Incogniti writers on the development of opera. The very ambiguity of sung drama appealed to them. It gave them the opportunity to exercise their forensic skills, as illustrated by the variety of defenses and definitions they erected…in defense of their work. [9]

  Venetian librettists, in justifying sung drama, researched and questioned the received wisdom of the ancients. What were the theatrical practices of Ancient Greece for example? Were tragedies sung throughout or were choruses the only sung parts? Worse, was anything sung at all? Such issues were thoroughly discussed by librettists although some claimed the futility of such exercises. Busenello for example, dismissed the issue in the preface to his libretto La prosperità infelice di Giulio Cesare dittatore: “And may those who enjoy enslaving themselves to the ancient rules find their fulfillment in baying at the full moon.” [10] Ironically, the same librettists who dismissed those issues, as Rosand explains further, are found elsewhere justifying their work through classical precedents. [11]

  While these intellectual debates about the practice of the ancients raged, the Venetian socio-political context forced a new kind of opera to emerge. In Venice, Florentine solutions could only offer a temporary answer to the problem of verisimilitude. As Tim Carter explains, opera was quickly used as a new tool in the political mythology of Venice “emphasizing greatness, magnificence and luxury.” [12] The first Venetian operas, including Monteverdi’s Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria and Incoronazione di Poppea, draw into this potent theme. Historical themes exploiting the mythic origins of Venice through the Troy-Rome-Venice succession (especially what Rosand refers to as the Rome-Venice paragon) were immediately adopted by librettists. [13] Soon after those first years, however, the subject matter of librettos changed their focus from the Republic’s mythic origins to more “realistic” subjects. The shifting focus of librettos’ subject matter illustrates that Venetian writers quickly stopped relying on Florentine and Mantuan conventions to justify sung drama and its verisimilitude to speech. It might also show that the concern for verisimilitude did not last very long. However, as we have seen above, this concern seems to have been a deeply felt one in the 1640’s at the least.

  The emergence of operatic conventions helped in defusing the problem of verisimilitude by allowing the audience to enter this state of mind where temporary “suspension of disbelief” was possible. From the very first year, new creations referred to and borrowed from past ones. The dependence on classical justification slowly began to ease off, the new genre swiftly establishing itself. La finta pazza, a libretto by Giulio Strozzi set to music by Francesco Sacrati, played a major role in the establishment of operatic conventions. Presented in 1641, the opera was a resounding success. As Rosand explains, beyond the vast campaign of publicity or propaganda organized by the Incogniti, the opera had inherent qualities that made it a success. [14] La finta pazza established archetypical scenes—the mad scene, the sleep scene, the comic aria, etc.—that were widely imitated in other productions. Many of those conventions, however, were drawn from the “tradition of spoken theater, from comedy and the pastoral.” [15] The opera, playing with the self-consciousness of being a sung text, exploits those types of scenes to justify singing. As Rosand explains, La finta pazza, constantly plays with aesthetic issues and blurs distinctions between “actors who sing and singers who act, between speech and song.” [16]

  While studying questions of verisimilitude, one can legitimately ask if they were merely intellectual games that did not concern lay people, games played mostly by the aristocrats of the Incogniti. I believe that this unreality of musical speech is inherent to opera as a genre. In my mind, there is something profoundly unnatural, and even at times disturbing, to musical speech. It is an acquired taste, one however, that the Venetian audience seems to have acquired rather quickly. I suspect that as we go to movie theaters nowadays and watch unrealistic dramas, the Venetian audience similarly deluded itself and accepted the vraisemblance of sung drama in order to happily escape reality. Unsurprisingly, the most accessible part of sung drama and also the quintessential representative of song in opera, the aria, imposed itself on the genre through the influence of performers and public demand. The aria, however, was not readily favored as a verisimilar mode of expression. By the 1630’s, while recitative was an accepted convention, songs (arias) were questioned as to their adequacy to represent “characters in highly emotional states.” [17]

Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria [18]

First presented in 1640, Monteverdi’s Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria stands exactly at this early point of early Venetian opera development and is a reflection of its time. Monteverdi was of course not new to the genre and he brought the sum of his experience when he returned to it in 1640. [19] Il ritorno combines the wide array of the master’s compositional practices. In addition to musical devices used in Orfeo—dramatic and ornate recitative, canzonettas, strophic variations, etc.—Monteverdi adds to his palette the fruit of his Venetian experimentations. For example, the relatively new concitato style, first developed in the Combatimenti di Tancredi e Clorinda and explored further in the eighth madrigal book, is used in the opera.

  In Il ritorno, as opposed to l’Orfeo, recitative is employed in a more integrated fashion. As Carter explains Il ritorno exemplifies a fluidity between the various compositional styles available to the composer. A fluidity, Carter argues, that illustrates the audience’s acceptance of the “musical conventions of opera.” [20] Tomlinson corroborates Carter’s views adding however that in Monteverdi’s Venetian operas, “realistic acts and situations can be seen to accentuate the unreality of the medium in which they are presented.” (Tomlinson 1995, 10) In other words, librettos with more realistic or human characters, as Ulysses, accentuate the problem of verisimilitude. Song was appropriate only for certain types of character—pastoral characters, and gods—and in specific situations where convention was making it credible: love songs, mad scenes, comical scenes, sleep scenes, overwhelming joy, etc. Outside of a dramatic context allowing his singing, there was no reason for a character like Ulysses, unlike the ‘ divine’ Orfeo, to do so. The same argument applies to the other realistic characters as Penelope, Telemaco, the suitors, etc. Knowing the audience’s growing taste for arias, the challenge that Monteverdi and Badoaro faced was in justifying song for such characters. [21]

  It is therefore unsurprising that Monteverdi and Badoaro make use of conventions profusely. For example, Il ritorno contains a number of scenes where gods sing, a skill granted to them by their very nature. In the first Act, when Minerva tells Ulysses that he has reached Ithaca, she sings in an aria style. In the last Act, Minerva, Giunone, Giove, and Nettuno all communicate with each other in ornate recitative reminding us of Orfeo.

The character of Iro, a parasite “nutritionally” dependent of Penelope’s suitors, exploits the comical aria convention. [22] As Pirrotta puts it: “Self-consciousness of operatic conventions lends itself to intentional caricature.” [23] Iro is the perfect caricature. The fact that a parasite like him sings is in itself comical. Pirrotta rightly observe that the incongruity is in part what makes comical characters comical. [24] Rosand interpretation of the character goes further as she argues that Iro brings light to the opera as a whole. Rosand, compares Seneca of l’Incoronazione di Poppea to Iro and suggests that: “Iro’s body representing the weakness of the flesh, is in effect set against the moral strength, the chaste love, of Penelope.” [25] In this light, Iro’s death suggests that spirit will triumph over the body in the end.

  However, Love more than anything else is the prominent justification for singing in Il ritorno. Ordinary characters as Melanto and Eurimaco sing their love for each other in the first act. The suitors frequently sing their love for Penelope, regardless of how honest they might be. Throughout the opera the language of Love is clearly identifiable because of its systematic setting in ternary meter. [26] In this context, Penelope stands out of the opera as the character that refuses to yield to the language of love. As Tim Carter points out: “her refusal (inability?) to sing rather than speak is one of the most striking feature of Il ritorno.” [27] Because of her intense depression over Ulysses’ absence, there really are no reasons for her to sing and therefore Monteverdi sets her role almost entirely to recitative thus preserving the verisimilitude of the opera. It is also important to note that most of her recitative is set to d minor. [28]

  Using the above arguments, many authors have pointed out that Penelope stays immaculately faithful to Ulysses throughout the opera. As Carter says, Penelope successfully resists Time and Fortune, the first two allegorical characters present in the opera’s prologue. [29] Il ritorno’s questions is: Will she be able to resist Love? This question is better framed in the context of the opera’s prologue. In my sense, Love does not act independently of Time and Fortune. Could Penelope’s resistance have been overestimated? Is it possible that with Time and Constance the suitors would have truly succeeded in convincing Penelope? [30] She does after all, yield to the pressure imposed on her by the suitors.

  In comparison with the first Act of the opera where Penelope sings mostly in d, the second Act offers a lighter tone on her part. Act II, scene V, is the first example of this lighter atmosphere. (see Appendix I) In her response to the suitors ‘Non voglio amar, no, no,’ Penelope sings to triple-time music. Carter has rightly said of this passage that it is a: “foot-stamping refrain…which denies its status as aria even as it runs its petulant triple-time course.”

  However, could this scene be an indication of Penelope’s declining resistance to seduction? Monteverdi could have well set her refusal to recitative but he chose the triple-time aria. In addition, the whole scene is in C which, as pointed out by Chafe is closely associated to joy (allegrezza) in the opera. [31] Both the suitors and Ulysses (at the end of the opera) call upon Penelope to let her joy break out and in both cases the scene is set to C. In my sense, Penelope’s refusal is not one that leaves no room for the suitors to hope. To some extent, she seems pleased to be courted while she repeatedly says no. [32] Additionally, she gives a clue of her possible weakening when she says:

  Come sta dubbio

  un ferro se, se, fra due calamite

  da due parti diverse egli è chiamato, cosi

  sta in forse il core

  nel tripartito amore. 

  (Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria, Penelope, Act II, Scene V)

  However, she adds that only those who do not know Love are ignorant of its cruelty. Penelope finishes on an A triad leaving some ambiguity about her final thought. The door seemingly remains open for the suitors to insist again.

  Act II of scene XII is central to the opera. [33] It begins with a duel between Ulysses and Iro that Ulysses win. Interestingly, Penelope congratulates the winner while singing in C, referencing perhaps the tonality’s symbolic quality discussed above. In the next few moments, the suitors again try to win the queen’s love as they offer great gifts and consecutively romance her. [34] Penelope finally decides to hold a tournament to settle who will be allowed to marry her. Her response to the suitors’ wooing is set to recitative mostly in G, a tone indicating some receptivity on her part. Most significantly, her decision to hold the tournament is highlighted by a repeated series of C chords. Temporarily forgetting Ulysses, the C chord announces that she is about to let go of her resistance and abandon herself to joy. (see Appendix II) However, a moment after she regrets her decision and returns to her usual depressing d.

  While the suitors ultimately fail to fire Ulysses’ arc, they have succeeded at convincing Penelope. This scene, in my sense shows the temporary triumph of Time and persistence over chaste Love. Penelope also evokes a prodigious effect of heaven and stars to explain her sudden decision hence, mixing in Fate in the equation. In this scene however, Monteverdi carefully avoided to set Penelope’s part to triple-time music as he did in the previous act. He preferred to portray Penelope in a more austere mood as she was taking her defenses down. In this way, Penelope remains fateful to Ulysses while the harmony betrays her heart. Unsurprisingly, after the unsuccessful tournament, Penelope immediately returns to her depressing key of d. Ultimately, Ulysses finally convinces her of his identity allowing the opera to finish in a triple-time love duet expectedly set in C.

  As we have seen in this essay, early Venetian operas creators were struggling to establish a new genre. Their intellectual background made them self-conscious of the problems of verisimilitude and they tried to make the audience “suspend their disbelief” through the use of different conventions. As exemplified by his first Venetian opera, Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria, Monteverdi did not escape this historical reality. Through the very subtle combination of recitative, song, and harmonic symbolism, the composer succeeded at preserving the verisimilitude of Penelope and the opera. Monteverdi demonstrates his mastery of the handling of those issues and his thorough comprehension of the workings of Human Frailty.



  Carter, Tim. "’In Love's Harmonious Consort’"?: Penelope and the Interpretation of Il

ritorno d'Ulisse in patria.” Cambridge Opera Journal 5 (1993): 1-16.

  _________. Monteverdi's Musical Theatre. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2002. 

  _________. “The Seventeenth Century.” In The Oxford Illustrated History of Opera.

Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994, p. 1-46.

  Chafe, Eric T. Monteverdi’s Tonal Language. New York: Schirmer Books, 1992.

  Pirrotta, Nino. Music and Theater from Poliziano to Monteverdi. Cambridge: Cambridge

University Press, 1982.

  Rosand, Ellen. Opera in Seventeenth Century Venice: the Creation of a Genre. California

University Press, 1991.

  ___________. “The Bow of Ulysses.” The Journal of Musicology: 12 (1994): 376-395.

  ___________. “Iro and the Interpretation of Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria.” The Journal

of Musicology 7 (1989): 141-64

  ___________. “Monteverdi’s Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria and the Power of Music.”

Cambridge Opera Journal 7 (1995): 179-84.

  Tomlinson, Gary. Monteverdi and the End of the Renaissance. Berkeley: University of

California Press, 1987

  Tomlinson, Gary. “Pastoral and musical magic in the birth of opera.” In Opera and the

Enlightment, ed. Thomas Bauman and Marita Petzoldt McClymonds, 7-20. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995.





Monteverdi, Claudio. Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria. Concerto Vocale, cond. René Jacobs.

Digital disc. Harmonia Mundi, 901427.29, 1992.

  Monteverdi, Claudio. Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria. Monteverdi-Ensemble Opernhaus

Zürich, cond. Nikolaus Harnoncourt. Digital disc. Teldec, 242 739-2, 1981.





Monteverdi, Claudio. Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria, Volume 12, of Tutte le opere.

Nuovamente date in luce da G, ed. Gian Francesco Malipiero. Wien: [Universal

Edition], 1930




[1] Nino Pirrotta, Music and Theater from Poliziano to Monteverdi (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982), p. 263.

[2] Gary Tomlinson, “Pastoral and Musical Magic in the Birth of Opera,” In Opera and the Enlightment, ed. Thomas Bauman and Marita Petzoldt McClymonds (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), 7-20; see p. 8.

[3] Tomlinson, “Pastoral and Musical Magic in the Birth of Opera,” p. 13.


[4] It is interesting to note that musical prologues involving allegorical characters and sung choruses satisfied the criteria of verisimilitude, both having theatrical or antique precedents. See Pirrotta, p. 269.

[5] Pirrotta, Music and Theater from Poliziano to Monteverdi, p. 272. 

[6] Quoted from (Tomlinson, “Pastoral and Musical Magic in the Birth of Opera,” p. 8.)

[7] Ellen Rosand, Opera in Seventeenth Century Venice: the Creation of a Genre (Berkeley: California University Press, 1991), p. 44.

[8] Its founder was questioned on several occasions by the Inquisition.

[9] Rosand, Opera in Seventeenth Century Venice, p. 44.

[10] Ibid., p. 42.

[11] Ibid., p. 43.

[12] Tim Carter, “The Seventeenth Century,” In The Oxford Illustrated History of Opera, ed. Roger Parker (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994), 60-99; see p. 21.

[13] Rosand, Opera in Seventeenth Century Venice, p. 126.

[14] Ibid., p. 112.  

[15] Ibid., p. 323.

[16] Ibid., p. 117.

[17] Tim Carter, "’In Love's Harmonious Consort’"?: Penelope and the Interpretation of Il ritorno d'Ulisse in patria,” Cambridge Opera Journal 5 (March 1993): 1-16; see p.2.

[18] The authority of the source is problematic when working on this opera. There is no critical edition of the work to this date. For a thorough discussion of the source, see (Carter 2002, 239-44) I worked from the three-acts version of the opera directed by Nikolaus Harnoncourt: Claudio Monteverdi, Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria, Monteverdi-Ensemble Opernhaus Zürich, cond. Nikolaus Harnoncourt. Digital disc. Teldec, 242 739-2, 1981.

[19] A full three years after the first opera was presented in Venice. Accounts of the time show that Monteverdi was expected to produce an opera.

[20] Tim Carter, Monteverdi's musical theatre (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2002), p. 249. 

[21] Carter, "’In Love's Harmonious Consort’," p. 2.

[22] Many authors argue that the tradition of the Comedia dell’Arte had prepared the Venetian public for comical arias.

[23] Pirrotta, Music and Theater from Poliziano to Monteverdi, p. 280.

[24] Ibid., p. 279.

[25] Rosand, Ellen. “Iro and the Interpretation of Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria.” The Journal of Musicology, 7/2 (Spring 1989): p. 162.

[26] Carter, "’In Love's Harmonious Consort’," p. 8-9. 

[27] Ibid., p. 8. 

[28] Eric T. Chafe, Monteverdi’s Tonal Language (New York: Schirmer Books, 1992), p. 270-1.

[29] Carter, "’In Love's Harmonious Consort’," p. 9.

[30] Of course, the audience very well knew the happy outcome of the story.

[31] Chafe, Monteverdi’s Tonal Language, p.270-1.

[32] It makes one think of a scene where a lover presses his or her companion to let go of any resistance. Typically, the “victim” repeats “no” several times before finally letting go!

[33] It is interesting to note that in Act II, scene XI, Penelope, responding to Telemaco’s description of Helen of Troy and her vision of the return of Ulysses to Ithaca, sings in D. Chafe does not make a distinction between Penelope’s singing in d or D but in my sense this passage denotes a touch of hope. It is also the dominant of G, the tonality in which she sings in the following scene.

[34] In Act II, scene VIII, learning the rumor of Ulysses’ return, the suitors decide to offer great gifts to the queen and do everything they can to convince her to choose of them as her husband.